From The Times

March 10, 2008

Max Raab

Clothes designer and creator of the classic shirt dress who used this success to break into Hollywood as a producer

Whether Max Raab was a designer or a film producer would be a difficult question to answer. In short, he was both. He created the first shirt dress, and his clothing line, Villager, epitomised the preppy uniform of 1960s America. He also forged a successful career in film production thanks to phenomenal instinct. With both clothes and film, Raab knew a hit when he saw one.

Max Louis Raab was born in Philadelphia in 1926, the son of Herman and Fanny Kessler Raab. After serving in the US Army during the occupation of Japan in the Second World War, he returned to his first job in design at his father's shirt manufacturing company.

His feelings towards the business were ambivalent, however. While he recognised the market potential, he loathed the products: “No quality, no style,” he declared. His awareness of their shortcomings propelled him to act upon the first of many intuitions. “After the war, I saw America becoming an increasingly teen-dominated society and an upwardly mobile one,” he said. People on lower incomes “wanted clothes like the gentry wore”.

He observed that women were increasingly buying men's shirts at the American tailors Brooks Brothers. He acted upon the trend, returning to his father's factory and creating a man's shirt specifically tailored for women. It found huge success and, aided by his brother Norman, he expanded upon the prototype. Making the shirt longer he created what still remains a seminal womenswear piece today, the shirt dress.

In 1949 the Raab brothers' label, Villager, was born. By recognising the growing fervour for smart sportswear with a collegiate, preppy edge Max Raab had cornered a market. “I made clothes that didn't upstage the woman,” he confirmed. In terms of its place in fashion history, Villager's style would prove to be a precursor for one of the most acclaimed lifestyle brands, Ralph Lauren. It transcended fashion to become an emblem of American culture.

By the 1960s Villager had a $140 million annual turnover. Yet Max Raab, ever the innovator, had an eye on other ventures. As an avid fan of film since childhood, he saw his clothing business as a way of breaking into Hollywood. He informed film studios that they could use Villager's clothes free, in exchange for a place on set. When the film David and Lisa (1962) was shot in his home town, he was asked to supply clothes for the actress Jean Margolin. He consequently learnt the production ropes, transferring his previous set of skills. “The movie trade wasn't so different from the garment trade. You need two ideas, an idea and capitalisation.”

Max and Norman Raab sold Villager in 1969, allowing Max to concentrate on his film career. He befriended film-makers such as Robert Downey Sr and Mel Brooks, and in three years he had produced five films, including Walkabout in 1970, where his $1 million investment doubled.

His most intuitive move was to purchase the rights to the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange. At first the influential Hollywood studios refused to take it on. Finally, he convinced Stanley Kubrick to direct the film, and became executive producer himself. He later admitted it was “a great exercise in deal making. It made me a pile of money.”

In the early Seventies Raab's focus returned once again to the clothing industry. “I get much more recognition in the apparel industry,” he confessed. In 1974 he established J.G. Hook, a casualwear and lifestyle brand. Its revenue reached $50 million by 1980. In 1989 he set up another company, Tango, which sold sporty neckties and made $17 million profit in three years. He sold J.G. Hook in 1998 to set up his own documentary company.

Even towards the end of his life, while suffering from Parkinson's disease, Raab could not resist yo-yoing between his two chosen careers. One minute film, the next fashion, his last venture in 2007 - “just for fun” - was a toy shop.

He is survived by his third wife, Merle, whom he married in 1999, and three children.

Max Raab, clothing manufacturer and film producer, was born on June 19, 1926. He died on February 21, 2008, aged 81